Life Between the Tides by Adam Nicolson 2021

Reviewed in the NYT in March, I found this book on the shelf at the CPL.  The author is a fascinating character, the 5th Baron of Carnack, educated at Eton and Cambridge who has written 18 books on topics as varied as the King James Bible, Homer, and natural history.  His writing for periodicals in the UK has garnered a number of awards.  His work to save the environment has included turning Sissinghurst’s 200+ acres (the hereditary estate of his grandmother Vita Sackville-West) into a farm to raise food to ridding several islands in the Hebrides of rats.

In this volume he turns his attention to tidal pools, those collections of sea water between the low and high tides.  He created three separate pools with pick-axe, crowbars, rocks and cement along the shore of a bay on the ocean between the Scottish mainland near Oban and the Island of Mull.  He used those pools as his ‘laboratory’ for observing how life can begin in new places.  He discovered how living things interact to create the interplay between flux and stillness that creates the ‘animation of life.’

The early chapters focus on the biology and ecology of these pools providing fascinating details on the lives of sandhoppers, prawns, winkles, crabs and anemones.  Who knew that crustaceans have a ‘vivid and layered self’.  Some of this was a bit much for me, but most of it was fascinating.  Nicolson then shifts his focus from the specific and tiny to the universal and infinite.  Chapters on the tides (created by changes in momentum of the earth’s solid features rather than the pull and push of the moon on the seas!), geology, the myths and beliefs of ancient people of the area, and finally two philosophers whose work led him to his final conclusions about life and nature—Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976).

Spencer’s vision of ‘evolution towards perfection’ turned out to be a Victorian delusion while Heidegger’s ‘house of being’ depended on a view of the world as full of ‘contradictory simultaneities’ which emphasize the finitude of our human condition and our interdependence on all of the natural world.  That view, summarized in George Steiner’s 1978 book about Heidegger (sadly, a confirmed Nazi during and after WWII), took Nicolson back to his tide pools, created for no reason other than to ‘linger with being’ where life is brilliantly organized around competition and individual characteristics.  It is this interdependence of man on all of nature that is Nicolson’s main message—the tidal pool as symbol for man’s place on earth.

This is a strange but ultimately beautiful and important book.  It won’t appeal to everyone, but if you are interested in biology, ecology, and man’s place in the natural world, it’s a good one.